Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Starbucks in Union Rehiring Dispute, Tightening Injunction Standards

The injunctions are meant to serve as interim measures to stop unfair labor practices while the NLRB addresses complaints.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Starbucks in its challenge to a judicial order requiring the rehiring of seven Memphis employees who were fired while attempting to unionize.

This decision could complicate the ability of courts to quickly halt labor practices contested under federal law.

The justices unanimously overturned a lower court’s injunction, which had been sought by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), mandating Starbucks to reinstate the workers during the ongoing administrative case against the company.

The Supreme Court found that the lower courts had applied an improper legal standard—one that Starbucks argued was too lenient—in issuing the preliminary injunction under the National Labor Relations Act.

The injunctions are meant to serve as interim measures to stop unfair labor practices while the NLRB addresses complaints.

Under Section 10(j) of the Act, a court may grant such an injunction if it is deemed “just and proper.”

Starbucks contended that the judge should have applied a more rigorous four-factor test, similar to that used in other courts and non-labor disputes.

This test includes assessing whether the party seeking relief would suffer irreparable harm and the likelihood of success on the case’s merits.

Justice Clarence Thomas authored the ruling, with the justices agreeing to remand the case to the lower court to apply the four-factor test.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in a partial dissent, disagreed on how the lower court should apply part of that test. Starbucks argued that under a stricter standard, the case outcome would differ.

President Joe Biden’s administration defended the NLRB’s actions.

A Justice Department lawyer noted that the NLRB requests such injunctions sparingly, issuing only seven last year despite receiving 20,000 unfair labor charges annually.

Approximately 400 Starbucks locations in the U.S. have unionized, involving over 10,000 employees. Both sides have occasionally accused each other of unlawful conduct.

Numerous complaints have been filed against Starbucks for alleged unlawful labor practices, which the company denies, asserting respect for workers’ unionization rights.

Both sides agreed in February to a “framework” for organizing and collective bargaining to potentially settle pending legal disputes.

Starbucks reiterated its goal of reaching contracts with union-represented stores this year, emphasizing the importance of consistent federal standards for employees’ rights.

In 2022, seven workers at a Memphis Starbucks, who were part of a union organizing committee, were fired after allowing a news crew into the café.

Despite this, employees voted to join the Workers United union.

The NLRB accused Starbucks of unlawful firings and sought an injunction, which U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman granted to mitigate the “chilling effect” on unionization.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this injunction in 2023.

Workers United President Lynne Fox criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling, stating, “Working people have so few tools to protect and defend themselves when their employers break the law.

“That makes [Thursday’s] ruling by the Supreme Court particularly egregious.

“It underscores how the economy is rigged against working people all the way up to the Supreme Court.”